The Rule Of 150 & Continuous Partial Attention

A recent comment on my blog kindled my curiosity to explore the cognitive implications of social tools . I get the feeling that there is a potential relationship between the popular “Rule Of 150″(Dunbar’s Number) and Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). Dunbar’s number is the “cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships” according to the Wikipedia.

As more people get on to the internet and as opportunities to expand our personal networks emerge like never before, we observe that we easily shoot past Dunbar’s number. CPA in my view is an evolutionary response to rapidly expanding personal connections that challenge our cognitive capabilities to break the barrier of 150. As we shoot past the limits of 150 we no longer look for stable relationships, we move into a state of “peripheral awareness” even as we continue to focus on the meaningful connections and the task at hand. Quoting from Wikipedia again: “Dunbar has theorized that 150 would be the mean group size only for communities with a very high incentive to remain together”. I am not looking for stable, meaningful and persistent relationships beyond a core group but I cannot ignore significant happenings outside my group of 150. I am slightly at odds with what Nat says on CPA:” Continuous partial attention isn’t motivated by productivity, it’s motivated by being connected. ” There is also a motivation/necessity to be aware(and even reading 100 blogs kicks in CPA) which in turn might have an impact on the decisions I make.

Stowe Boyd nailed it when he said : “The reality is that we need to be constantly scanning the horizon for events that are worthy of our attention. We can’t a afford to stay heads down for hours or days at a stretch when critically important events may be occuring that could require us to immediately respond to them. “[Via Smatmobs]. I agree when Nat says ” The next aphrodisiac is committed full-attention focus. In this new area, experiencing this engaged attention is to feel alive. Trusted filters, trusted protectors, trusted concierge, human or technical, removing distractions and managing boundaries, filtering signal from noise, enabling meaningful connections, that make us feel secure, are the opportunity for the next generation. Opportunity will be the tools and technologies to take our power back.” And yes, the tools and technologies should somehow limit trusted sources to some managable number less than 150 if we need to get rid of CPA.


Is Social Software Necessary & Sufficient For KM?

The recent debate on whether social software would solve traditional problems that KM faces got me thinking on whether social software is necessary and sufficient for effective KM?

Nic Carr wrote : “McAfee sounds a note of caution along these lines. He notes the possibility that “busy knowledge workers won’t use the new technologies, despite training and prodding,” and points to the fact that “most people who use the Internet today aren’t bloggers, wikipedians or taggers. They don’t help produce the platform – they just use it.” There’s the rub. Managers, professionals and other employees don’t have much spare time, and the ones who have the most valuable business knowledge have the least spare time of all. (They’re the ones already inundated with emails, instant messages, phone calls, and meeting requests.) Will they turn into avid bloggers and taggers and wiki-writers? It’s not impossible, but it’s a long way from a sure bet.”

Why are we doing tool talk again? I guess it is time to step back and understand the forces at play. If managers and other employees don’t have much spare time there should not be any spikes in participation when open and more straightforward tools are introduced. This is not the case. Once you replace complex KM systems with simpler tools that inherently support conversations there is a spike in participation. ( The same busy employees somehow FIND time). Here is a case that reflects this behaviour: (Comment by Graham Hill on Ross’s blog.)

“PwC had invested tens of millions in developing a “worldwide body of knowledge” in the form of standards, templates, project documents, etc. Trouble is, it was out of date when it was released, hardly anybody posted anything to it and it got progressively more out of date. Think of it as a knowledge land-fill.
At about the same time, an enterprising consultant called Jon Z. Bentley set up an internal Lotus Notes group called “The Kraken” to share information on-demand. Any of the 45,000 consultants worldwide could sign-up. Members would post a question about anything to the Kraken which would be copied to all members. Members could ignore it, or read it and if they had anything to say, post a response back. Common rules of etiquette were that all members were to receive the response. The Kraken very quickly grew to over a thousand consultants and discussed, debated and shared information about a wide range of consultancy (and some not so consultancy) topics. If you wanted the latest on anything, you would post a note to the Kraken and see what turned up. Very often, it was just what you were looking for, (and generally was not available in the KM database).
In almost complete contrast to PwC’s official KM activities, the Kraken delivered up-to-date knowledge to those who wanted it in on-demand. And it cost practicaly nothing as the consultants did all the work for each other.
When I left PwC to go independent, the Kraken was one of the communitarian aspects of PwC that I missed most. “

How do you explain this spike? Open,flatter systems that are more responsive and dynamic. This probably helped people get things done( manage exceptions to the process??) .

This brings us to an interesting question: Is Social Software necessary and sufficient for effective knowledge sharing to happen?

IMHO, No. I believe there are two classes of problems to be addressed to improve knowledge sharing:

1.Unduly complex systems to share knowledge need to be phased out

2.Employee engagement at work needs more attention.

Social software addresses problem 1 very well. It dramatically reduces the barriers to contribution and sharing IF employees choose to share. And to attack the “if employees choose to share” challenge we need to work on improving employee motivation and commitment at work. If employees are engaged in what they are doing and there is value alignment – knowledge sharing will work.

Here is a one of my old posts that spoke about this in detail:

“”Work done by Nick Bontis and Jac Fitz-enz addresses how aligning good HR/OD policies with KM impacts business performance.Quoting some interesting findings from the paper:”employee sentiment, as defined by satisfaction,motivation and commitment, has far-reaching positive impacts on intellectual capital management, knowledge management and ultimately business performance.””Employee commitment has a positive influence on knowledge generation (+ 0.491). Knowledge integration is preceded by process execution (+ 0.394) and is followed by knowledge sharing (+ 0.262). Finally, knowledge sharing will occur, if value alignment (+ 0.285) is evident, and this can lead to a reduction of human capital depletion.”Managing employee sentiment seems to be at the heart of a successful KM initiative.Perhaps this is the reason why organizations without a “formal” KM program still manage to flourish.(??)All this makes me think if we are asking the right questions when we begin a KM program.It seems a major part of change management that needs to be handled during such initiatives should be geared towards managing employee sentiment – I would even look at a starting KM initiative as an opportunity to understand employee sentiment and see how the KM initiative by itself can positively influence it. I feel when loose knit structures like communties become central and when “responsible autonomy” ( From ” The New Organisation” – Economist) becomes the order of the day we would understand this better.” “

So, if I as an individual believe in my organization’s vision atleast as much as the executives who wrote that vision, I would somehow FIND time to help someone who called me from some other office across the globe. I would CHOOSE to actively engage with the other person in helping him out – not because I will get a coffee mug but because I want to learn and become better at what I am doing and ALSO I see what the senior management sees – Where should WE as a company be in 10 years? [ Think Value Alignment ] . There is this “purpose beyond self” thing here.In organizations where knowledge sharing is happening all the while the key could be value alignment. When employees share what they know voluntarily, they are acting in the best interests of the organization and there is implicit value alignment at work.

I would attribute the spikes in the PwC case to :

1. Simple social tools brought in more participation from people who would have otherwise not contributed. I believe we would see this trend with any social software rollout.

2.There were people with burning issues/questions and there were engaged employees who were willing to FIND time and answer them. (Supply-Demand)

However, if we try to put the cart before the horse and deploy blogs and wikis and expect magic to happen it will not. If there is employee engagement and committment – knowledge sharing will happen irrespective of the tools you provide them. To what degree is still an open question. Social software dramatically reduces the barriers to contribution and sharing and hence accelerates knowldge sharing IF AND ONLY IF you have a critical mass of engaged employees. It is ok if this group is small. And Im sure most organizations that have been in business for a while would have a handful of employees who would adopt this given the low entry barriers.

Early adopters tend to be people who have one or more of the following traits :

1. They have a burning issue to solve and existing systems are too cumbersome and the new system is really easy to use ( And as a side effect of my action there is a contribution to a larger community).

2. They are simply tech savvy and have no interest beyond experimenting with the new tool

3.They are engaged employees who are always looking at better ways of doing things. The tend to be change catalysts in organizations spreading the word about these tools. Their numbers could be small. But my gut feel is that engaged employees have a stronger network within and outside the organization.

Engaged employees would jump onto social software that makes life easier. From a sustainability perspective we need to focus on HR/OD interventions to improve employee engagement at work. (I believe that KM should NOT be incentivized. By doing so we send out an implicit message that this is ANOTHER thing that you NEED to do). If you have a demotivated and disengaged workforce NO matter you give them the moon or the mars you will endup with empty portals,wikis and blogs.

This is important because once you have lowered the barriers for people to connect and share using social software- we need to figure out if the peers would enagage in problem solving actively.

With social software we would see an increase in participation definitely because of the ease of use. However, this does not necessarliy mean we have nailed KM woes. Focus on employee engagement – this together with the simplicity of social software would catalyze knowledge sharing in organizations. Otherwise, we still stand the risk of social software failing to meet expectations.

Social Software is necessary but NOT sufficient to solve KM problems.

Knowledge & Sensemaking Are Emergent Properties

Luis Suarez writes about The World is Round . I left a comment on his blog. However, I thought I should post it here as well. Luis feels that for a transition to happen from information sharing to knowledge sharing, communities and collaboration are key. He also quotes Larry Prusak : “Until our governments, NGOs, schools, corporations, and other institutions embrace the idea that knowledge—not information—is the key to prosperity, most of the world’s people will remain a world apart“.

Here is my take on this : I feel there are many communities out there which focus on knowledge per se.Wikipedia is a great example. It has the community and the collaboration factors Luis is speaking about. Further, I disagree with Larry when he says that information alone may not be the key to prosperity. For instance,here in India,there is an initiative called e-Choupal (meaning “village meeting place”)which allows farmers to check prices in local auction houses and the prices of soyabean futures at the Chicago board of trade.This basic information helps farmers make more margins and lead a better life.Just being aware of the “price of a commodity” can transform the lives of people. Focus on connectivity and information. Sensemaking will follow-that is an emergent property!!

Finding the roots of "Grass Roots" !!

Many of us working in the KM/Collaboration/Communities Of Practice space keep using the word “grass roots”. I was curious to find the origins of this word. Here is what I found in
An 1876 book about the Black Hills says that “gold is found almost everywhere, in the bars, in the gravel and sand of the beds, even in the ‘grass roots,'” that is, the soil just below the surface. But by the turn of the century we thought of grass roots as more than just a place to dig. Beneath the visible blades of grass, keeping the grass alive and making it grow, are the simple roots. Getting down to grass roots meant looking at the “underlying principles or basic facts of a matter,” in the words of Charles Earle Funk, the lexicographer, who remembered the phrase from his Ohio boyhood in the late 1800s. It was in the grass roots where you could truly understand a situation and effectively respond to it.” (Emphasis mine)

This has helped me appreciate why Communities Of Practice are grass root movements – Members of a CoP understand a situation (domain+practice) and effectively respond to it ( actions that emerge from the community). Taking this metaphor a bit further-the enterprise is represented by blades of grass;the communities are the simple roots that keep the grass alive!!

Enterprise 2.0 Would Signal The End Of The Corporate KM Function

Stowe Boyd’s response to my previous post got me thinking on the implications of the edge on Enterprise 2.0. As enterprises start adopting the idea of the participatory web within the firewall, the corporate KM function as we know it today would cease to exist eventually. (Symbolically represented by the last empty cell on the table below). When this happens is anybody’s guess. As knowledge work draws from and contributes to the edge, the need to “manage” knowledge would reduce. This table is a comparison of the key differences between Enterprise 1.0 and 2.0. The implications of the edge would go far beyond KM and would impact the way businesses are structured and run. Let me know if you can think of other differences or alternative views.

Enterprise 1.0 Enterprise 2.0

Knowledge Manager

Community Coordinator/Collaboration Evangelist



Shared Workspaces

Wiki based collaborative workspaces




Chief Edge Strategist -This role would be far more transformational than the typical CKO of Enterprise 1.0

Teams (Employees are assigned to projects)

Managerial Oversight is key.

Smart Mobs (Employees would self-select into projects) – JIT Teams . This IMHO would be the most important revolution on the organizational stack (Borrowing the term from Tom Malone).Employee autonomy is key.

Traditional unit of work is a “task”

New ways of micro-chunking work would emerge. This would enable self-selection of employees into projects they can be of maximum value to.

Cross-cultural interventions in global teams

Emergence of the true “global networked citizen” – Dwindling cross-cultural interventions

Change Management

Change manages itself

Centrally “managed” knowledge repositories with “knowledge owners”/librarians responsible for the content.

Self-sustaining/Self-Healing knowledge stocks (Wikipedia kind of ecosystems) augmented with systems enabling flow (Blogs,RSS,SSE etc.,)

Idea Management Systems

Idea Aggregation Systems – Increasing acknowledgement of the “edge”

Organizational Knowledge Management is the primary goal

Personal Knowledge Management is the primary goal

“Getting” people to share

Helping people “getting things done”

Firm composed of business units run by formally employed managers

Firm composed of business units run by intrapreneurs who “emerge” from the edge

The Corporate KM Function

Is the Enterprise Web 2.0-ready?

I just left a comment on Nicholas Carr’s blog suggesting we need to ask if the enterprise was web 2.0 ready and not the other way around. I was reading an article on stagnant intranets by Shel Holtz in Webpronews. He says :

Most companies are struggling to retain a command-and-control structure for their intranets. Tools that put control into employees’ hands are antithetical to intranets where only authorized representatives of the company can contribute content.”

This is at the heart of the problem. It is almost meaningless to ask “Is Web 2.0 enterprise-ready?” – Ask “Is the Enterprise Web 2.0-ready?”. Are enterprises ready to let go of control where it is not necessary? Do managers see the implications of a participatory web within an enterprise? If they don’t, the IT guys would have a huge problem sometime soon. Many of your employees may already be using Writely, Basecamp, Campfire etc., because unlike enterprise KM systems that focus obsessively on Organizational Knowledge, these lightweight tools helps people get things done. They put the individual at the center – not the enterprise. If you think you can accrue value to the enterprise first and the individual next-you are doomed to fail. Benefits to the organization from managing knowledge will be a side effect of individual’s actions – and that is what social software enables.

I agree with what Lynda says in the Centrality Journal : “What grassroots means in this context is providing people with something so compelling they use it and spread it on their own instead of corporate managers “change managing” it down people’s throats. It’s exactly what is happening with instant messaging, Skype and the like, and it is the opposite of the top-down approach that failed so spectacularly with many CRM installations.”

Just to add my two cents to this: With grassroots adoption models there is still a change challenge. But fortunately, with word-of-mouth, change manages itself.

Inner Management – Missing Dimension?

I was listening to Tom Malone’s speech on The Future Of Work. His views on the “choices individuals have” in a increasingly decentralized world have a lot in common with Yochai Benklar’s ideas on “Individual Freedom”. Benklar in his new book Wealth Of Networks writes :”This diversity radically changes the universe of options that individuals can consider as open for them to pursue. It provides them a richer basis to form critical judgments about how they could live their lives, and, through this opportunity for critical reflection, why they should value the life they choose.

Malone towards the end of his speech asks: Given the choices we will have how do we make wise choices? What kind of a world do we want to create? What do we want? To answer these questions we need to listen to our inner voices. Logic,politics and economics will not answer these questions. He goes on to quote E.F.Schumacher from Small Is Beautiful : Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order. The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind.

Incidentally, I was listening to a talk by Jaggi Vasudev of the Isha Foundation on “Inner Management”. I feel this is really important from an individual’s point of view in a world of decentralized decision making and increasing autonomy.

He says : “…If we are doing management for human well being, in the process of doing something, in the process of managing situations, it is not only about producing something or making profit, human beings should rise to their full potential.

If we manage a situation properly, in simple process of working, you and the people who are working with you, should be able to raise to your full potential.

When I say rising to full potential not just work potential but as human beings they must be able to rise to their full potential.

If people work together, then people should be able to rise to the peak of their love, peace, compassion within themselves. If this doesn”t happen then its bad management, because all management, the basic intent is human well being.

If that is not happening you are just producing someething, you are making little profit, but human beings are getting broken in the process….”

Sample audio clip here. Another book of interest is the Sphere Of Silence by Vijay Easwaran.

Stephen Covey’s review of this book:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that silent space, or sphere, lies our power of choice. In those choices lie our peace, balance, happiness and growth. This beautiful little book inspires silence and wise choices. I need this wisdom constantly. Prayerful, pondering, centering meditation in silence has been the source of true victory, private & public, all my life.”

Spiritual Integration will become increasingly important for individuals and enterprises in the coming decades. Chief Spiritual Officers, anyone?